One of the most controversial stocks of the COVID-19 downturn is Disney (DIS 3.46%). No doubt, Disney is a timeless brand, with incredible diversity and vast reach across the entire entertainment industry.
However, that "diversity" means that large parts of Disney's business are now effectively shut down. That includes its most profitable division of parks, experiences, and products, and its third-most profitable studio entertainment division, which is mostly first-run film releases in movie theaters. While the company's high-growth direct-to-consumer division, including Disney+, has been growing like wildfire amid the stay-at-home economy, that division is still unprofitable, and likely won't make profits until 2024. These severe headwinds forced Disney to recently lay off 100,000 workers in its theme parks, and two analysts recently downgraded the stock, which is still down by one-third from its recent highs.
That leaves Disney's media networks division, which includes ESPN, to carry the company at least somewhat through this difficult time. But with no live sports and advertising spending depressed, that division is in for a rough ride as well.
Enter Michael Jordan.
The Last Dance soars
Though live sports are currently off the air, ESPN does have one new piece of content attracting fans in droves: The Last Dance, a 10-part docu-series on NBA great Michael Jordan. Produced by veteran sports documentarian Jason Hehir, The Last Dance alternates between a close look at the 1998 Chicago Bulls run for a sixth championship in eight years, as well as Michael Jordan's entire career from his childhood up to that point in time.
Disney had initially slated the documentary to run in June, in conjunction with the NBA championships and kids getting out of school for the summer; however, in light of COVID-19 pandemic, the company moved the air date to April. The first two parts of the documentary premiered on Sunday, April 19, with the next two airing tonight at 9 p.m. ET. The series will air two episodes each Sunday through May 17.
The series premiere shattered records for original ESPN content, with episode one garnering 6.3 million average viewers and episode two garnering 5.8 million, surpassing the previous 2012 record for ESPN's You Don't Know Bo documentary, which garnered 3.6 million viewers. It's also the most-watched telecast among the 18-34 and 18-49 demos since sports was halted.
These blockbuster numbers may not even fully capture viewership, as many more people now watch programming on-demand versus 2012. The docu-series also went wild on social media, shooting to the top trending topic on Twitter (TWTR 2.36%), with 25 of the top 30 trending topics all related to Michael Jordan at one point. According to ESPN, there were nine million social media "engagements" related to ESPN's post about the documentary. In social media, an "engagement" counts all likes, comments, shares, and retweets about a topic.
In a sports-starved world, people are clearly flocking to this in-depth look at the greatest sports figure of the millennial generation. But is it enough to save ESPN and Disney?
Live sports still win
Though The Last Dance is a record-breaking hit in terms of viewership for an original ESPN series, it still only garnered about half the audience of a typical Monday Night Football game, which averaged roughly 12 million viewers last year. That really goes to show just how much the House of Mouse is missing live sports right now, and that Air Jordan, as heroic as he is, may not be quite enough to lift Disney's June quarter results.
However, it also speaks to the power of live sports, which means ESPN should regain its prominence, and potentially then some -- once sports does return and fans' pent-up demand is unleashed. While it might be strange to see teams playing in completely empty stadiums, which is likely how professional sports will return, sports remain an unmatched draw in terms of broad audience appeal.
Cord-cutting may hurt even more than The Last Dance can levitate
Another issue to watch is that with live sports currently off-air, many consumers may be cutting the cord on the traditional cable bundle, since live sports are such a big part of the bundle's value. Despite the success of The Last Dance, that could actually cause Disney's media networks division to underwhelm in both the first and second calendar quarters even more than expected. We'll learn more about the damage done in the March quarter, as well as the upcoming June quarter, when Disney reports earnings on May 5.
But even if the near-term looks bad, Disney's world-class brand is likely to survive these headwinds and emerge from the crisis over the long-term. Foolish investors should focus on the strength of Disney's timeless franchises amid the crisis, and ESPN will no doubt be helped by The Last Dance. While it's impossible to say if Disney's stock has bottomed yet, long-term investors should still have Disney at the top of their buy lists during this "lost" year.